Depression-era photos spark memories for Walla Walla man

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“Enter, within is opportunity. Come ye men and women of tomorrow and embrace it. Here is an open doorway to success and you are welcome. Enter.”

— Boys & Girls Clubs, circa 1917.

As a child Robert “Bob” Jamison, 92, recalls going to the Little Rock (Ark.) Boy’s Club and reading the plaque over its entrance. “‘Enter ye men of tomorrow,’ it said. I never forgot that.”

Born Nov. 7, 1920, at his South Campbell Street home in Springfield, Mo., Bob’s family faced some serious challenges. His parents, James Andrew and Alice Gholston Jamison, had a large brood: six daughters, Grace, Louise, Virginia, Ellen “Blue Billy,” twins Georgia and Martha and Margaret “Bitsy;” and two sons, Bob and James A. Jamison.

When he was 9, Bob said the bankers went broke in the Great Depression. Of the $55 dollars Bob had to his name and put in the bank, “I only got $5.50 back — 10 cents on the dollar.” And his dad, who owned two small grocery stores in Little Rock got really hurt by the 1929 stock market collapse.

In those days the only welfare available was in the form of railroad boxcars carrying bacon and hams, Bob said. “You’d go up to a boxcar and get you a slab of bacon and to the next boxcar and get you a ham. It’s the only welfare they had.”

When Bob was 12, his father died of tuberculosis. In 1934, Bob came alone to Walla Walla from Little Rock, seeking a better climate and work and leaving his mother to support his sisters. He had $8 to his name, $5 of which came from a boyhood friend’s father. He paid the man back on a subsequent visit back home.

At 15, he took employment where he could, spending almost 11/2 years at the DeBoer Brothers’ Prospect Point Dairy. “I slept in a pump room. The pump woke me up at night. I covered it with boards and blankets and slept there. I cooked the food and did house work. I (occasionally) got $5 if there was any money, but if I didn’t spend it, it was taken back.” For being a helper there, he got room, board and laundry and could drink as much of the returned raw milk as he wanted.

He improved his pay in increments by changing jobs. He delivered freight for a small store behind where the Union-Bulletin was on Second Avenue. “Then Mel Buttice said ‘apply for my job,’ so I saw the old man, then worked there a year. The Firestone man came in every day and asked me to work at the service station for $5 a week more, so then I got $25,” Bob chuckled.

Bob’s daughter, Connie Jamison of Walla Walla, said when he worked at 55 Messenger, he got sent to the local houses of ill repute a couple of times. “The madam was from the South. From then on Ruby had dad do everything for her, buy her makeup, whatever she wanted, and he shopped for her. When the madam needed the delivery service she told them, ‘I want Bobby and don’t send anyone but Bobby,’” Connie said. When he delivered to Ruby, she tipped him a dollar.

Working for Ernie Larson’s 69 Messenger, Bob drove truck and got 40 percent. It was 11 cents per order and he delivered on a truck from the Fuller Paint Store every morning.

“I weighed 133 pounds, was skin and bones back then. I must have looked pitiful.” The adults around him noticed. “A Japanese fellow from Imperial Cafe (Yuso Shinbo) fed me biscuits and sausage every day. I also delivered food for Shep’s Pool Hall every day and got a steak dinner out of deliveries every day. The woman there always had me a dinner made. I was lucky to make $5 a week at 55 Messenger,” he said.

President Franklin Roosevelt “was the best man for the job,” Bob said of those dire times. “Roosevelt knew what to do to get things done,” such as creating opportunities to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps.

“I signed up too young, really,” Bob said. “The captain got me in early because dad died of tuberculosis. I was going to Lewiston with a troop train of CCC men and ended up at the camp here.”

There wasn’t any training involved. From CCC Camp 1761 on Mill Creek Road, they went to a quarry up Mill Creek and got rocks.

“We knocked them rocks out there, wedged them out, took the rocks out the mountains and lined the cracks in the ditches to stop erosion.

“We loaded trucks with rocks. There was no fancy stuff. We had to do everything by hand.”

He stayed in Barracks No. 3, he said. He left quarrying to work in the camp as cook and mess sergeant. “I took care of the officers and took the best of the food for them. I was called a ‘dog robber,’” he said, explaining that first-class soldiers are called dogs and the cooks “robbed” them to feed the officers.

He didn’t mind the nickname, as “each officer gave me a dollar more as a tip and that added up to $47 from them. “I was in real tall cotton then.”

At its highest enrollment, there were 300,000 in the CCC ranks. Through the nine years it operated, 2.5 million participated. The CCC was a U.S. public work relief program from 1933-1942 for unemployed, unmarried men from relief families, who were 17-23 years old.

Bob and the others were afforded food, shelter and clothing and a small wage of $30 a month. And $25 of that had to be sent home to their families. With that $25 Bob’s widowed mother fed his siblings.

They built more than “800 parks nationwide and upgraded most state parks, updated forest fire fighting methods and built a network of service buildings and public roadways in remote areas,” according to Wikipedia.

Bob left the Walla Walla CCC camp after about a year and went to Arkansas. “There wasn’t anything there, really. But I was at a CCC camp at Lost Corners. It really was lost in mountains.” At such high elevation, “We came through three layers of clouds. That’s something with all those hickory trees that looked like a big lawn.”

“There was nothing there for me. I was a salad boy in one of the finest hotels in Little Rock — squeezed half a crate of oranges for Gene Autry.” But with little of consequence to do there, Bob remembers asking himself, “what’s ever going to become of me?” He returned to Walla Walla.

During World War II, his flat feet kept him out of the military so he worked at the U.S. Army Air Corps base here filling gravel trucks for 60 cents an hour top pay and getting two shifts a day. He and Magdalena Henzel married in mid-January 1942 in Lewiston.

Later on, Bob was given a hand up from local businessman Don Sherwood. When Don went into business, his father-in-law John G. Kelly owned the U-B and loaned Don $50,000, Bob recalled. Don rented an office upstairs in the Book Nook (Die Brücke Building) and loaned $25, $50 to people, Bob said.

“He backed me in my first service station. I showed him the books and said ‘I think I can make it.’ I can’t give him enough credit.”

“I was a poor man’s car dealer too, bought and sold cars all my life.” He had three gas stations, Bob’s Union Service at Ninth Avenue and Main Street, Bob’s Union Service on Ninth and Chestnut Street and another one by Green Park School.

Having lost his own father quite young, Connie said Bob took several boys under his wing as a mentor while he had the service stations, College Place Police Chief Dennis Lepiane and former Walla Walla District Court Judge Jerry Votendahl among them. He took them hunting and fishing. “He had lots of buddies when he was in his 50s and 60s,” Connie said.

He drove a bit for Inland Freight and then for Consolidated Freightways. “Consolidated hired people for three days, three weeks or three months but I ended up there for 22 years.”

While a trucker, he covered hundreds of thousands of miles in 40 years, including with the Teamsters, and “I never had an accident or a ticket.”

He currently drives a Lincoln Town Car. “I’ve made and lost a lot of money and helped all my kids,” he concluded.

Bob loves to tell jokes and recite poems and hits it off famously with most folks. About 30 guests and several of his kids helped Bob and Magdalena celebrate his 92nd birthday Nov. 7 at Affinity, Connie said.

Magdalena and Bob have three sons, Ronald Jamison of Walla Walla, Randall Jamison of Vancouver, Wash., and the late Robert Jr.; and three daughters, Connie Jamison and Virginia Walker, both of Walla Walla and Teri-Ann Nystron of Spokane; seven grandchildren and nine great-granchildren. His sister, Margaret Nettles, lives in Des Moines, Wash., and brother James lives in Little Rock.

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